The Art and Science of Telling Stories

By: Kate Snyder, APR
Feb. 1, 2020
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Storytelling forms the foundation of many PR campaigns, and for good reason. Telling stories is an art backed up by science; according to the Harvard Business Review, stories create chemical connections in the brains of audiences.

At the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, Paul J. Zak and other researchers studied how the neurochemical oxytocin creates bonds with other people. When we feel trusted or we’re shown kindness, for example, our brain tells us: “This person is safe.”

The researchers went further by exploring whether they could “hack” the brains of audience members into connecting and cooperating with the storyteller. They discovered they could.

Zak and his team discovered that for a story to give the audience a desire to help others, it must first sustain their attention — a scarce resource in the brain — by developing tension. When a story creates tension, viewers and listeners become more attentive and more likely “to share the emotions of the characters in it, and … to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters” after the story ends, Zak wrote. His findings explain the sensation of dominance moviegoers feel after watching James Bond save the world, and our “motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in [the movie] ‘300.’”

Zak’s insights might not come as news to those of us who tell stories for a living. Narrative tension captures the audience’s attention, creating connections and spurring them to action. But many PR people are Type-A personalities who love data, research and numbers. Empathy and emotions may not be our strong suits (I’m looking in the mirror). Some of us are more into process and strategy. So how can everyone in public relations tell stories that forge emotional connections?

Paint a picture.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice came from a former journalist who told me: “Always paint a picture with your first few sentences.” Close your eyes and envision the scenario, and then describe what you see.

As a natural analyzer, I don’t always pick up on social cues. But I do notice details. If you’re the same way, then use your observations to paint pictures that captivate others. Show them what you see.

Embrace your data.

According to Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, people are struggling with trust more than ever. 

At a time of widespread skepticism, encourage trust and validate your stories by backing them up with data.

Tell authentic stories.

“Storytelling” has become a buzzword in public relations. And yet, many PR campaigns don’t actually tell stories.

Take a good, critical look at your own campaigns. Do they tell authentic stories about people who represent your brand, organization or cause? Get to know the people whose stories you’re trying to share. To tell stories in public relations, we must capture human perspectives that create bonds with audiences, not manufactured narratives. 


photo credit: constantine johnny